Sunday, August 9, 2009
I am going to try to write a review of Chuck Klosterman's debut novel "Downtown Owl" without sounding like a snob. I am going to fail, but it's worth the attempt.
Downtown Owl is set in the fictional small-town of Owl, North Dakota during the winter of 1983-1984 and the book interweaves the unconnected and seemingly unconnectable stories of three of its residents. Fifteen-year-old Mitch struggles to read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for his football coach's English class and can't understand why his friends like Van Halen and ZZ Top so much. Twenty-four-year-old Julia (Jules to her friends) is starting to like being the only passably attractive single girl in town, if only for the free drinks. The novel's third main character, seventy-three-year-old Horace, spends his time divided between a lonely house filled with thoughts of the wife he loved but does not miss and the Cafe where he gets his coffee and conversation with older elderly farmers.
Klosterman is an entertaining writer, and he creates a lot of funny situations and side characters. However he doesn't seem to be able to stop himself from going too far, whether it's making his character's life-stories too inconceivable, their nicknames too complex, or their personal philosophies too ripe for mockery.
He also doesn't do enough to distant himself from the type of writing he's most famous for. Granted, there are times when references to popular music or culture can be constructive in a work of fiction, but too frequently that is not the case here. It is off-putting to read Klosterman get inside a character's head but then break the spell, so to speak, because he just has to name drop a record that even within the body of the text is something he admits the character would be unfamiliar.
What Klosterman does best is explore the inherent uncertainty of human interaction, often in meta-fictional or inventive sections of the text. At one point he writes the dialogue between Julia and a man she is falling for (and who has fallen for her, though neither of them have any idea about the other) twice, once is the 'actual' conversation, the other is what each was really trying to say.
There is a lot that Klosterman gets about writing a novel. His characters are distinct and well-developed, and his sense of place (obviously crucial to a novel like this) is excellent. Near the end of the novel he even showcases the ability to create dramatic tension, something that had been decidedly lacking for the first nine-tenths of the book. The conclusion was unexpectedly gripping, but it leaves the reader hollow in the aftermath. It feels almost like a cheat, well-written though it may be. Klosterman may be able to create interesting characters and write with an admirable verve, but it is far from proven that he knows what to do with any of it.